No one can settle on the best interpretation of the NBA's annual Most Improved Player award. But that doesn't mean the voters don't regularly settle on a very deserving winner.
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Chicago Bulls All-Star shooting guard Jimmy Butler, the final pick of the first round in the 2011 draft, was officially announced as the NBA's 2014-15 Most Improved Player on Thursday. Butler will be presented with the award at United Center on Friday, prior to Game 3 of the Bulls' Eastern Conference semifinals series with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The news was first reported by by Marc Stein of ESPN.com on Wednesday.
Butler received 92 out of a possible 130 first-place votes, finishing with 535 "award points," to take home the honor. (Players get five points for each first-place vote, three for each second-place ballot and one for each third-place nod.) Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green finished second, earning 11 first-place votes, 43 second-place bids and 200 total points; he also served as the runner-up in this year's Defensive Player of the Year race, slotting just behind winner Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs.
Another top-five finisher in DPoY voting, second-year Utah Jazz shot-blocker Rudy Gobert, came in third, with 12 first-place votes and 189 total points. Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, who went from out of the NBA to a starting role on a playoff hopeful in less than two months, finished fourth, while Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson — who, like Butler, rose from starter to All-Star in his fourth pro campaign, rounded out the top five. You can check out the full voting results here.
This award often goes to a player whose per-game scoring average increases simply because he plays more minutes, but Butler is an exception. The 25-year-old guard played exactly the same number of minutes per game in 2014-15 as he did last season (38.7, tops in the league this year) but increased his scoring average from 13.1 points per game to 20 points a night while also improving every single one of his shooting percentages — from 39.7 percent from the field last year to 46.2 percent, from 28.3 percent from beyond the arc to 37.8 percent, and from 76.9 percent at the free-throw line to 83.4 percent.
Those changes coincided with a more essential role in the Bulls offense. Butler was the team's most consistent perimeter scorer for the bulk of the season, made his first All-Star team, and is currently averaging 24.1 ppg through the Bulls' first seven playoff games. Butler earned his first postseason award last spring when he was named to the All-Defensive Second Team.
Butler joins recent MIP winners Kevin Love and Paul George as players who took home the hardware while making the leap from the level of a solid young player to that of a star. There are many other ways to look at the award, and the other top 2014-15 candidates fall into some of the most common categories.
The Heat's Whiteside became one of the league's top rim protectors after falling out of the league for two full seasons — he was the pick for those who value a rise from having been written off by the vast majority of analysts. Utah's Gobert was a relative non-factor as a rookie but became a fearsome player at both ends in his second season — he's a good choice for anyone who wants a player who rises from obscurity and looks primed for much better things in the future. Golden State's Green is a bit like Butler — he stands out for those looking for a rotation player who becomes an essential part of a contender.
Whatever option you prefer, it's difficult to argue that Butler isn't deserving of the honor. His next challenge will be to stay a star for years to come.
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